The High Cost of Cheap Food

Compared to most Americans, I spend a lot of money on food, almost $100 per month just for fresh produce. But even my grocery bill pales in comparison to what the rest of the world spends on basic nutrition.

Americans spend less money as a percentage of income on food than people of any other country in the world. On average, only 6% of our household budget goes to pay for food, compared to the French, who eat through 14% of their income, or the Kenyans, who spend 45% of each paycheck on groceries.

But even though it seems like we may be saving money on food compared to the rest of the world, what is the real cost of cheap eats? Let's find out.

It Costs Tax Payers 20 Billion Dollars Per Year

Although fresh produce is out of the budget range of many Americans, the sick irony is that food, especially packaged food, is cheaper in the United States than pretty much anywhere else in the world. This is because the cost of crops like corn is kept artificially low by the government.

Food in the United States wasn't always this cheap, though. In 1960 our grandparents were spending about 17.5% of their income on food. Then, in the 1970s, Earl Butz, Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture, re-engineered New Deal farm programs that were meant to stabilize the food supply, into a support system for the factory farming of corn and soy.

Starting in 1971, crops like corn, soy, and wheat started getting heavily subsidized — to the tune of 20 billion dollars a year. What this means is that corn farmers can make more money from their government subsidy than they do by actually selling corn. Of course, since farmers have such a wonderful incentive to grow corn, they grow lots and lots of it.

We Pay for Cheap Food Twice

So how do farmers dispose of their artificially cheap product, paid for, in part, by taxpayer dollars? By selling it to food manufacturers as filler, preservatives, and binding agents. Surprise! All those mystery ingredients listed on food packages like citric acid, fructose, sorbitol, dextrose, lactic acid, MSG, malt, and diglycerides are all corn byproducts. And, each of these non-food ingredients contains calories.

We End Up Spending More Money on Health Care

Documentary films like Super Size Me and Food Inc. have spotlighted the health consequences of cheap food, especially on America's poor. But obesity, heart disease, and diabetes are not the only health problems linked to fast food. A Harvard Medical School study also found that children who eat fast food three times a week had increased risks of asthma and eczema.

U.S. farmers actually produce the equivalent of 3,800 calories per person per day. This is at least 1,000 calories more per day than is recommended for people who are moderately active. So is it any wonder that Americans are fat?

It Causes Poverty and Hunger

As a result of NAFTA, Mexico has been flooded with cheap, government subsidized corn from the United States. Mexico, which is the birthplace of corn, now imports a third of its corn from America.

There are some huge problems with other nations becoming dependent on subsidized American crops. First, Mexican corn farmers who were unable to compete against the artificially low cost of imported U.S. corn were forced out of business. Obviously, when farmers lose their farms, they don't grow food to eat, they don't grow food to sell, and without work, they have no money to buy food. Millions of Mexican farmers lost their jobs due to cheap, imported food. Also, when poor countries become dependent on cheap imported foods, they risk a food crisis when there is a price spike on staple foods. This can lead to widespread hunger, which is what happened in Mexico with corn in 2007 and in the Philippines with rice in 2008.

The Environmental Cost Is Staggering

To quote FDR, "A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself." Farming is difficult and expensive, so many farmers are forced to max out production or go out of business. This 'go big or go broke' behavior is not financially or environmentally sustainable. Monoculture farming, although extremely efficient, burns through resources like water and topsoil. Commercial agriculture is currently draining groundwater in the Midwest about eight times faster than rain is putting it back in. This could lead to a second Dust Bowl.

Animals Pay the Price

If you forced a dog to live in a small box for its entire life, you could be arrested for animal cruelty and your neighbors would treat you like a pariah. What most people don't want to think about is that this kind of torture is the typical experience of factory-farmed chickens, pigs, and cows. Some animals will only see daylight on the day that they are slaughtered. Animal cruelty is the price of cheap meat.

The Working Conditions Are Terrible

Animals aren't the only ones that subsidize low food prices with their bodies. Last year an investigation by The Guardian revealed that much of the shrimp that the U.S. imports from Thailand was the work product of slaves. But slave labor doesn't just happen in the Third World. Thousands of farm workers in the United States work in very poor conditions. More than 1,200 people have been rescued from agricultural slavery rings in Florida alone.

You Risk Sickness

While Chipotle is blaming its multistate E. Coli outbreak on Australian beef, it's frankly shocking that this type of mass food poisoning doesn't happen more often.

For starters, it is common practice in the United States to feed cows chicken poop. Also, in order to cut costs, some slaughterhouses have managed to speed up their kill lines by 50%. Not only does this massive increase in volume result in more food contamination from fecal matter, but also more animal abuse and human rights violations. Stool run-off from factory farming, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations in agribusiness parlance, pollute the water table and create dead zones in oceans and rivers.

We're Funding the Zombie Apocalypse

One of modern life's existential horrors is the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria caused by antibiotic overuse. So, while parents are becoming more selective about dosing their kids for minor illnesses, these same moms and dads are unaware that livestock in the United States — because the animals are constantly sick from a diet of garbage and from standing in their own waste — is pumped full of antibiotics. In fact, the FDA has confirmed that animal agriculture consumes 80% of all antibiotics used in America. While meat producers argue that they are not breeding superbugs along with their livestock, a team of researchers from the Translational Genomics Research Institute discovered that one in four packages of meat and poultry in the United States contains multidrug resistant staph bacteria.

What Can One Person Do?

Ugh. All of this is terrible. Is it actually possible to eat responsibly without going broke or supporting human trafficking? Here are some things to consider.

1. Don't Waste Food

When food goes to waste, you not only waste money, you waste all the water, fertilizer, and labor that went into growing the food and transporting it to your plate. So, even if you don't know if your food is ethically produced, you don't have to be the weakest link.

2. Eat Healthy on a Budget

Eating a really healthy diet costs $1.50 more per day than eating an unhealthy diet. And $550 per year is a steep cost for many people, but compared to diet-related health costs, this is chump change. Every effort to eat healthy is a reward to your body, so just do as much as you can afford.

Luckily, even people on food assistance can eat healthy. Leanne Brown created Good and Cheap, a free online cookbook for people living on the SNAP budget of $4 per day for food. The book is beautifully photographed and the recipes are delicious. Brown's recipes encourage flexibility — because staying on budget means cooking with what's on sale and available. She has made it easy to substitute ingredients and still prepare yummy meals.

3. Eat Less Meat

Livestock accounts for 18% of greenhouse gases. So one simple thing that everyone can do to slow down global warming is to eat less meat. Personally, my husband and I save a ton of money by eating lower on the food chain. We are "domestic vegetarians," who eat meatless, homemade meals during the week.

4. Drink Less Sugar

A recent study of school children in my neighborhood revealed that 40% of their calorie intake came from sugary beverages. (It should come as no surprise that childhood obesity is at epidemic levels in my area.) When this fact was brought to light, a number of families were able to make one healthy dietary change that also saves them hundreds of dollars every year: they started drinking tap water instead of soda.

5. Shop Seasonally

Buy in-season produce. If you see peaches at the grocery store in December, you can pretty much assume that fruit was grown outside of the country. You will pay extra for the shipping costs of your food, and the planet will pay the cost of the transport in the form of more pollution.

Also, from a straight-up foodie standpoint, produce that must be transported is bred for shipping, not for flavor, which is why store-bought tomatoes are tasteless. In-season produce, which has been allowed to ripen on the plant or in the field, not only taste better than produce that was picked green, but is more nutritious.

6. Shop Locally

Support your local growers. It costs a lot of money to grow high quality food, sustainably. Even if you cannot afford to buy all your food locally, every little purchase counts, and all that money goes back to your own community. Also, it pays to ask around. I literally get tons of free backyard fruit donated to me every year by neighbors who can't eat through all their backyard produce and don't want it to go to waste. There are ways to find low cost food with a low carbon footprint pretty much everywhere. Just do what you can.

Are you concerned about the impact of cheap food on the planet? What do you do to eat more responsibly?

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Guest's picture

How about: Go Vegan?

Max Wong's picture

Hi Matt!

Going vegan falls into the eat less meat category! And yes, provided that you are decent cook, a vegan diet is an excellent way to help the environment and save money.

Guest's picture

Enjoyed this article & affirmed many of the reasons my family tries to eat as much whole, unprocessed foods, as possible.

Max Wong's picture

Hi Josh!

Thanks for taking the time to comment. My husband and I basically came to the conclusion that we could spend more money on food now, or more money on medical care later.